The Kataragama Esala Perahera, one of Sri Lanka’s biggest cultural and religious pageants, will be held after 45 days after the Kap Situweema ritual, which was held on 15 June. Accordingly, the perahera will commence on 29 July.

In our last week’s Heritage article we extensively talked about the Kap Situweema ritual. As per tradition, the Kap Situweema is performed on a Vesak Full Moon Poya Day. However, this time it was delayed and performed on the Poson Full Moon Poya Day but why?

Also, as we were enlightened by the officials of the Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devala, the perahera should take place for 14 days without any interruption. But why is it so?

To know more about these we had a delightful discussion with the officials of the Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devala including the Basnayake Nilame of the Devala, Dishan Goonasekara, the Chief Priest who is known as the Maha Kapu Mahattaya Somipala T. Rathnayaka, and the Astrologer (Nakath Rala) S.K. Ananda Sedarage of the Devala.

The Maha Kapu Mahattaya of the Kataragama devale, Rathnayaka explained that this perahera symbolises the sacred marriage or the union of the god and goddess, that is god Kataragama and goddess Walli Amma.

“This Esala festival is the sacred marriage of Kataragama Devihamuduruwo and Walli Mathawa. That is why the Kap Situweema ritual is done. In the past, a Magul Maduwa was put up and the Kap Situweema represents that ritual,” said the Maha Kapu Mahattaya.

On the day of 29 July, that is 45 days after the Kap Situweema ritual, the perahera commences. According to folk belief, it is said that having the perahera for 14 days means, celebrating the marriage of the god and goddess for 14 days. It had been the tradition in Sri Lanka (and in ancient cultures in India) in the past that royals would celebrate marriages for seven days (dawas hathak magul kanawa). As this is the marriage of a god and goddess, the splendour doubles, making celebrations last for 14 days.

As the Maha Kapu Mahattaya further explained, the main perahera or the Magul Perahera walks only on the Magul Veethiya. The Magul Perahera leaves the Devala and goes towards the Walli Amma Devala and again comes to the Devala across the Magul Veethiya.

“After 10 peraheras, two peraheras are held on the same day and this is called the Devala Perahera. Only the Ath Hami (the Devala Tusker) and the Devala officials (Rajakarikaruwo) walk in the Devala Perahera.”

He also told us that there are a large number of rituals and traditions performed at the Kataragama Perahera and they are all being passed down from generation to generation for more than 2000 years, as they originated during the time of King Dutugemunu (161 BC – 137 BC).

According to the beliefs of the Sinhalese, folklore, and historical texts, the first Kataragama Perahera was held by King Dutugemunu after his victory over Elara. The king ordered that the perahera held in honour of the god at Kataragama should be continued until the sun and moon exists.

Astrology and traditions of the Kataragama Perahera

Astrologer Sedarage, who has been the Nakath Rala of the Kataragama Devala since 2004 joined us to share his knowledge and experience about the age-old sacred traditions of the Devala.

It is generally believed that the Kap Situweema of the Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devala is held on the day after Vesak Poya and the main perahera on the Esala Poya but this time it was changed. We asked him why.

“The tradition is to perform the Kap Situweema on Vesak Poya. However, when it is not possible to get the auspicious times related to these customs on Vesak Poya Day as it has happened in some years, it is postponed until the Poson Poya Day.”

The festival known as the ‘Il Maha Mangalya’ is also like that. Usually, it takes place in November, but if there are no auspicious times (nakath) in November then the festival is postponed to December.

 “We have to wait for auspicious times to perform the rituals,” he said.

He also said that they follow the moon calendar (Chandra-masa), and not the Roman calendar. This year in the Roman calendar Vesak Poya was on 15. According to the moon calendar, Vesak Poya was in the afternoon of that day (15 May) and poya was over at 9.45 a.m. the next day (16 May). “If this was early morning, it would not have been an issue, but as the time was late, we couldn’t perform Kap. So we had to wait until the relevant auspicious time came.”

The auspicious times for Kap Kapeema must fall on a full moon day, Kap Situweema on an ‘Awapalawiya Day’ and the first perahera must happen on a ‘Purapalawiya Day’. All these auspicious times and dates are based on the movement of the moon which has been the tradition for over 2000 years.

The Nakath Rala further said that it is a must to perform the perahera during Esala and Nikini (July and August) months. The perahera should not pass the month of Nikini (August). As these auspicious times and the moon calendar take a circular pattern, if not in Vesak, the auspicious time definitely falls in Poson. If the auspicious time won’t fall in November for the Il Maha Mangalya, it definitely falls in December.

Some years there are two full moons in Vesak which is known as an ‘Adhi Poya’. In some years, Kap Situweema was done on an Adhi Vesak Poya Day.

Length of perahera depends on moon calendar

The tradition is to hold the perahera for 15 days with 15 peraheras. In some years, it had been 14 or 16 peraheras. This year, there are only 14 peraheras.

In certain years, the perahera was held after 46 days from the Kap Situweema ritual, not 45 days. It is once again due to the movement of the moon and auspicious times. So, in some years if the poya day is not still over on Esala Full Moon Poya Day, the perahera will continue for another day until poya is over and then perform the water-cutting ceremony which marks the end of the perahera.

He also said that preparation of these auspicious times is done by maintaining its secrecy along with its sacredness and he, the Chief Kapu Mahattaya or the Basnayake Nilame, do not reveal these secrets beforehand.

A divine duty

“We do this work (Rajakari) with so much of honour, devotion, and dedication for the god of Kataragama. I believe that this position is a great opportunity bestowed upon me and I consider this as dedicating my life to God Kataragama, and a form of worshipping the god. We do this duty with a heart full of devotion to God Kataragama.”

He also said that these traditions, rituals, and customs are the life of the Kataragama Devala and the cult. Hence, they must continue these as long as the sun and moon exist.

Opening Kumana for Pada Yatra pilgrims

The age-old practice of ‘Pada Yatra’ has started and devotees from the far North of the country have already started to show their devotion to their beloved Skandha. Those from the West and the South and other parts of the island also join them entering the area from Kumana. Then together they all walk towards Kataragama.

The Kumana gates of the national park were opened for devotees on 22 June.

(Pix courtesy Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devala Media Unit)

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy